Burning Bright

For reasons unknown I have never yet visited one of Manchester’s most treasured and beloved tourist attractions – the stunning neo-Gothic John Rylands Library, part of the University of Manchester. Considering how long I’ve been here now, this is a strange omission. Not just because of the library’s ultra-convenient city centre location (it’s on Deansgate) but also because of my life long love of all things library related. On Saturday, prompted by good weather, a visit from my Mum, and the presence of an exhibition called Burning Bright, I finally went along to take a look. Burning Bright (as you might guess) focuses on William Blake – arguably the most versatile and visionary of the English Romantics; and in particular, on his book engravings and etchings.

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I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that to see some of Blake’s work up close is to be truly stunned by not only his craft and his technical prowess, but by the ability of deceptively simple two-dimensional scenes to conjure up a myriad of spiritual, moral, and mystical associations. A version of Edward Young’s popular poem Night Thoughts, containing over 40 specially commissioned watercolours by Blake, is one of the most memorable exhibits. Published in 1797 and a commercial failure, only 26 copies of this first part of the poem were ever produced, making it a truly significant gem in the Rylands collection.

Another exhibition called An Inventory of al-Mutanabbi Street presented a “re-assembled” imaginative “inventory” of reading material destroyed in a 2007 car bombing in Baghdad’s revered (and still under pressure) literary and cultural centre. Although a thought-provoking and original idea – the brainchild of poet Beau Bosoleil and researcher Sarah Bodman – I felt that a more modern and minimal gallery environment would have allowed the works on display here to shine far more brightly. Somehow, they did not have the power to displace the overwhelming symbolism and the hushed, spiritual atmosphere of the library itself.

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John Rylands is certainly a thing of wonder, regardless of any exhibitions on display. Built in the 1890s and funded by Enriqueta Rylands in memory of her late husband, it’s actually pretty hard to believe that the building is so modern. With its medieval style and quiet, church-like atmosphere, you imagine it must have been here for far longer. This was of course the architectural fashion of the time but apparently Enriqueta was a rather unconventional woman and actually asked that they tone down some of the psuedo-religious features of the library. Standing at either end of the spacious but nook-filled reading room, Victoria and Albert style statues of the Rylands themselves are just a little bit self aggrandising.


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8 responses to “Burning Bright”

  1. Pauline Sometimes says :

    I think we seldom take time to go see the places and things close to us. Like yourself I have had a love affair with all establishments containing books for most of my life, yet have never visited the Rylands in the near 30 years that I have been living in Manchester. However, a chance to see the originals of some of Blake’s work… I shall go take a look PDQ 🙂

    • musingfrommanchester says :

      30 years?! Woah. I don’t feel so bad now. LOL. You should definitely check it out, it’s a fantastic building.

      • Jemster says :

        Check you out, inspiring people! It often takes a tourist to appreciate what’s right under the noses of the locals….now when you come back to Glagow you’ll have to visit the Mitchell library! We should have gone there together when I lived right next to it….but I only visited it once to use the Internet!! Lol. Jemster x

  2. Jemster says :


    Isn’t the night time photo stunning? I know its not up there with the Rylands in terms of the interior architecture and exhibits, but still looks pretty good eh? On your next visit you could go and get some photos and compare….

    • musingfrommanchester says :

      Oh yes, the Mitchell library is stunning and I love the way they light it at night. Interesting coincidence for ya – in the office where I used to work a similar night-time shot hung opposite my desk. LOL. X p.s. yes let’s go visit again when I am next back home. Good idea!

  3. Jemster says :

    Really? A photo of the library? That is a coincidink! Now i think about it, i actually visited it twice – the second time was to use the loo which was a way down in the basement and it was like stepping back in time to the Victorian era. But with modern plumbing obv….lol. X

    • musingfrommanchester says :

      The toilets in the Rylands are the same! To the point where they have a sign up saying: “Please note, these are functioning toilets” or something like that. X

      • Jemster says :

        Really?! Hahaha. It does feel like you’ve stepped onto the set of a period drama or something, or one of those episodes of Dr Who where he goes back in time. Don’t remember if the Mitchell had a similar sign! :-)) xx

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